Is DNA Code?

dnaIs DNA code? This question has been answered affirmatively by some in an attempt to argue that DNA requires an intelligent author. Therefore the more fundamental question is “Did DNA arise from a natural process or from an intelligent designer?”

This is a legitimate question, but not a unique one. Throughout history, millions of similar questions have been asked, all having the basic form of “Does X have a natural or a supernatural cause?” Plug pandemics, lighting or psychotic behavior into X as examples.

For most of these millions of questions of causation throughout history, there have been 2 basic approaches.

  1. The supernaturalists, usually working from an impoverished understanding of the mechanisms in the natural world, have declared that, as there is no known natural mechanism available to provide causation, we must assign a supernatural cause to X.

    There was a time when such a default to supernatural causation was less inappropriate. In the early days of science, when the web of natural explanations was in its infancy, pondering the possibility of a supernatural entity behind amazing phenomena such as lighting would have been an understandable temptation for emotional humans either impatient for an answer or already possessing the vested interest of an ideology with a ready-made supernatural agent.

    However, today this web of natural explanations has exploded into an enormous inter-connected matrix of well-vetted mechanisms that, at no point, are forced to incorporate supernatural agency. And the web of coherent supernatural explanations? It does not exist. Supernaturalists generally merely posit invisible, inscrutable, untestable and unfalsifiable discrete entities that have no necessary causal connections. There is no cohesive web.

    The primary tactic of the supernaturalist is to ignore past failures, point to a new puzzling phenomenon, and again suggest that supernatural causation is the only appropriate conclusion. However, the enormous weight of their long history of failures are not only justifiably applied to our expectations of causality: it is highly irrational to do otherwise. We have a rational imperative to expect nothing but natural causes. The expectation of supernatural causation is indicative of an unwarranted presupposition that can be usually tracked to an emotional disposition of some sort.

  2. On the other side, the naturalist confronts the question with the expectation that the phenomenon will have a material cause. This is the rational expectation given the enormous successes of candidate material causes that have been posited for phenomena over several thousands of years.

    This materialist does not quickly default to any explanation that does not mesh neatly with the existing explanations in the web of scientific knowledge. This is not to say he is claiming supernatural causation to be impossible, but rather that supernatural causation has a dismal track record, and does not deserve serious consideration.

    Can the supernaturalists redeem themselves? Only by establishing a solid track record of successful explanations of causation that have either a clear mechanism or significant predictive power. For example, if some claim that prayer leads to healing, perhaps the mechanism that would elucidate how the physical mouths of the praying interfaced with the spiritual ears of a deity, and subsequently how the spiritual hands of that deity fought off the physical disease might be intractable or ineffable. However, if statistics clearly demonstrated that those prayed for recovered at a far greater rate than those who were not prayed for, then this would provide predictive power that would justify a serious consideration of the claim.

    So even if a natural explanation for a phenomenon does not emerge within the lifetime of the amateur scientists, they do not default to a supernatural explanation their deathbeds. Lighting, no doubt, was disconcerting to many naturalists for centuries as its explanation required the extended web of naturalistic web of explanations that we today have now finally uncovered. However, those past materialists who understood the historical successes of naturalism when applied to other inquires, and the complete failure of supernaturalism claims, were warranted in their confidence that the cause was in fact material, even if not revealed in their lifetimes.

History has not smiled on the claims and predictions of the supernaturalists. Modern claims of divine miracles evaporate under the scrutiny of science, and there is not a single domain of inquiry that can demonstrate supernatural causation as even a promising candidate. Supernatural causation remains a logical possibility, but, based on induction, is highly improbable. It is not surprising within this context of historical precedent that supernaturalist are now employing semantic arguments as we shall soon see with their use of the pregnant term “code” as a descriptor of DNA.

It was just a few short decades ago that we encountered yet another phenomenon just beyond the extremities of the web of existing material explanations: the marvelous discovery of DNA, the origin of which we do not yet have a well-developed explanation. And once again we have supernaturalists claiming a supernatural cause. But this time it’s not just something such as the causation of lighting for which a concession to a natural cause was only mildly embarrassing. What is at stake for many supernaturalists is the credibility of their holy scriptures in which their deity designed humans. What is at stake for the materialists is the preservation of a methodology that should attempt to approximate pure objectivity and consequently gives no place to bald claims of divine revelation or to emotional predispositions.

To further set the stage for our discussion of DNA, it might be wise to remind readers that, prior to an examination of a phenomenon, an examination of the examiner is necessary. An introspective look at our biases will allow us to more closely approximate objectivity-the very foundation of science. It is a natural inclination for us to suppose that, had we lived centuries ago, we would not have adopted the current beliefs of the period. However, centuries ago phenomena such as fire or lightning were ontologically distant from any conceivable material explanation, and the infancy of the web of interlaced material causes prevented those happily drawing “truth” from the entrenched religions from taking it seriously. Nearly everyone defaulted to a supernatural explanation of the causation. How could one not? Lightning was so awful and powerful and amazing that it invariably evoked a strong religious response from its beholders, and much more so from its victims.

In addition, the psychological demand for an immediate answer to life’s mysteries far too quickly overruns our patience in the context of slow arriving evidence. In ancient days before the precedent of material causation was well-established, a default to the epistemologically satisfying immediate answer of supernatural causation was too human an impulse to ignore. Today, in spite of learning to lean far more heavily on science, we are still human.

It is in this historical and psychological context that we are now examining this claim that DNA is “code”.

Let’s begin with an analogy. Al and Zeb are on a camping trip in the woods.

Al: Hey come sit over here on this chair.

Zeb: What chair?

Al: The chair right in front of you!

Zeb: Do you mean this stump?

Al: That stump is a chair.

Zeb: No it’s not. A chair is created for people to sit on.

Al: Well, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing: sitting on it.

Zeb: I mean it had to be created for that purpose. I doubt this stump was created with sitting in mind.

Al: How do you know that?

Zeb: I don’t, but it certainly does not seem designed for sitting. I would have designed it much differently if it had been designed for sitting.

Al: But you do agree it can be a chair, right?

Zeb: Alright, I’ll call it a chair if it will make you happy and I can sit down. (Zeb sits on the “chair.”)

Al: So you agree that your chair was created, right?

Zeb: It was created by something obviously. But it looks to me as if it could have been just a natural process.

Al: How can you say that after you’ve just admitted it’s a chair?

Zeb: Calling it a chair does not mean it was designed, and saying it was created does not mean the creator was sentient.

Al: But if you look at any definition of “chair”, you’ll discover that it implies design.

Zeb: But that’s not what I’m implying when I say “chair”.

Al: But it was created, right?

Zeb: Right.

Al: So your chair had a designer.

Zeb: You’re equivocating on your definitions. For me a chair needs no designer, and a creator does not need to be sentient.

Al: Then give me an example of a case where a chair had no designer.

Zeb: But you’re the one who initially suggested that I call this a chair simply because I planned to sit on it. You’re still equivocating on your definitions.

The previous dialog highlights the semantic problem with this issue. The words “chair” and “code” are so subjectively laden with connotations of sentient design that the intent of the speaker is often ignored.

Under the semantics remains the question, “Is there a sentient agent behind the creation of the stump?” It is in these situations that conventional definitions must be replaced with stipulative definitions if the discussion is to advance. This is common practice among scientists, but lay scientists often fall into semantic traps.

Another way we can remove improper connotations from the word “code” or any other word we use to denote the process from DNA replication to the emergence of a new organism as a product of that DNA is through a thought experiment. Consider all the constituent processes. Is there any constituent process within the larger process that is not merely a chemical process, and therefore requires a sentient designer? No. Each constituent process is merely a chemical process. Whence then arises the notion of “code” as requiring a sentient designer? It arises from metaphorical inference. When we see an aggregate process that mirrors something in our subjective human experience, we default to a human metaphor. In this case, we default to the human activity of designing. Does the natural subjective defaulting to this metaphor mean that we are then constrained to accept sentient agency in the referent process? No. That remains to be tested.

So the use of a salient metaphor from the domain of sentient agents to describe a process does not mean that process itself requires a sentient agent.

Are the current apparent parallels between DNA “code” and human generated code significant? Let’s call them interesting. This would indeed be a prime opportunity for the supernaturalists to finally pull one off by substantiating their stance that DNA was designed by a sentient agent. However, the modus operandi is the same old tired method employed against heliocentrism, germ theory, electromagnetic theory and the like. Instead of making predictions themselves that would confirm their hypothesis of supernatural causation, they are once again merely pointing at holes in our current understanding, and suggesting that we will never discover a natural cause. Perhaps we won’t. But the scientific mind, familiar with historical precedent, does not quickly default to supernatural explanations, in spite of their emotional allure.

And the prospect of a substantiated case of supernatural causation? I’m not holding my breath.

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8 thoughts on “Is DNA Code?

  1. sam says:

    “The expectation of supernatural causation is indicative of an unwarranted presupposition that can be usually tracked to an emotional disposition of some sort.

    On the other side, the naturalist confronts the question with the expectation that the phenomenon will have a material cause.”

    So both people have expectations based on presuppositions that can be tracked to an emotional disposition (in the first case) and to, I assume cause you didn’t specify here, a rational disposition on the naturalist’s side.
    My question is : is there another reason apart from the predictive power litmuss test you’re using so often that we should value the emotional disposition less then the rational one? Assuming that they are in opposition
    And another one: why do we have to oppose this two aproaches to understanding human life instead of trying to find the specific role of each of them in building up the future understanding of it?

    I would like to bring to my help two more statements exctracted from your post here:

    “the psychological demand for an immediate answer to life’s mysteries far too quickly overruns our patience in the context of slow arriving evidence”

    “Today, in spite of learning to lean far more heavily on science, we are still human.”

    OK, I ‘d turn this one upside down: if we are still relying on supernatural explanations in spite of learning to lean far more heavily on science it means that we are still human. And happy to remain so

    • Thanks for the insightful questions, Sam.

      I’ll first attempt to rephrase your 2 questions, then respond.

      1. Are there other justifications for rejecting emotionally derived assumptions and defaulting to the assumption of naturalism in addition to the successful predictive power of methodological naturalism?

      2. Why is this an either/or situation? Why can’t we explore both to build a comprehensive understanding of the truth?

      Assuming I have correctly rephrased your questions, let me now attempt to answer.

      Rationality yields an objective singular truth, while emotions yield subjective plural truths. Rationality is an attempt to remove subjectivity from the equation to arrive at the single truth that is true for all. This objective truth is our universe as it actually is. Approaching a question with our emotions is usually an attempt to find a personal and subjective meaning in question. This is inherently plural. A historical or cultural glance at truths arrived emotionally will uncover as many such “truths” as there are humans. This demonstrates that a subjective emotional approach to questions does not very well correlate to an objective singular truth.

      So we have 2 domains: objective and subjective. Rationality is best equipped to uncover the objective truth, while emotions are wholly and selfishly committed to the contentment and happiness of their owner. Because of this inherent goal of the emotions, emotions have no place in the exploration of objective truth. They will only distort the truth.

      The emotions behind tribalism, for example, are co-opted by nations to generate nationalism. This is the belief that your country is better than others. The very fact that there is more than one nation demonstrates that this is far from an objective truth.

      So emotions distort reality. They provide us with a framework of subjective truth with the aim of making life interesting and happy. However, our commitment to subjective truths should be much more tentative than our commitment to objective truths. Likewise, our commitment to our emotions should be much more tentative than our commitment to rationality.

      Take the prisoners in a POW camp who are playing baseball. The realities of the game and the camp coexist. And we certainly not disparage the prisoners introduction of the subjective game to distract them from their objective imprisonment. However, the game is not only constrained by the rules of the game. The game is also constrained by the rules of the camp. Any attempt to retrieve a ball hit over the fence would not end well.

      * So to answer question 1, I would respond,
      Yes there is another justification for relying on rationality for queries into objective reality in addition to the predictive power of methodological naturalism. If the goal is a single objective truth, emotions are counter-productive as demonstrated by the plurality of private and often conflicting truths that invariably emerge from an emotional approach.

      * My answer to question 2 would be similar.
      Rationality and emotionality too frequently yield incongruous realities on opposite ends of the objectivity/subjectivity continuum and therefore must be applied within their proper domains. Emotions tend to distort objective reality, but these distortions are what makes subjective life interesting. You can’t mix methodologies when constructing objective and subjective truths. Each domain has its own proper methodology.

      So are emotions “bad”?
      Not if the are used to construct a subjective reality that plays by the rules of the underlying objective reality.

      Should we attempt to suppress our emotions?
      There are 2 domains of life: objective and subjective. I want to experience both. So I have trained myself to identify and remove emotions from the context of objective inquiries. At the same time, I live a subjective life that is probably more imaginatively wonderful than most. This intensity in my emotional life probably comes from the fact that I am very confident of where the objective “fences” are within which I play my emotional games in a subjective reality. For example, I have not allowed my subjective emotions to force me to posit an eternal soul for myself contrary to evidence. Now, because I believe I will not live an afterlife, I much more appreciate and enjoy this one.

      Let me know what you think, Sam.

  2. sam says:

    Thanks for taking time to answer my questions.
    Now, I am not very good at logical thinking as I was never a good chess player so don’t put me in charge with the strategy in a battle. Kidding.
    I would rather try and take you out of your comfort zone which is philosophy with a more personal approach. Don’t worry about me preaching or God forbid patronising. I am just interested in some more insight of your spiritual journey from being an observant Christian to being an agnostic (if this is the right label).

    Your example with the baseball playing prisoners in the camp and the talking about “fences” surrounding your “safe play” now is giving me an image of someone who has (finally) found a place where he can be himself and live his own life not the one expected from him by the so-called brothers (the Christian mates).
    As I am not very far from your position regarding the organised religion but yet not too fond of fighting against it, I wonder were is the turning point where you decide that religion or God as it is known and promoted officially has no correspondence in reality?

    What do you do with the imagination, the dreams, the fantasy which are all stances of the subjective domain of the life as you call it?

    Personally I would be afraid that by choosing to downsize the role of the subjective in order to paly safe, I could lose a world of possible “worlds” outside the visible one.
    In other words I am too greedy to let the hypothesis of God’s existence slip through my fingers. I decided that my life has no meaning anyway with or without God so whatever position I take it has the same chance of satisfying my need for hapiness. Religion has the little extras to offer which is hope.

    • Hi Sam,

      If I understand correctly, you are saying that your faith is based on your emotions and is not based on objective truth.
      If so, then we are in agreement.

      Personally, I need and enjoy objective truth as the foundation for more illusory experiences.

      Perhaps it is like turkeys on a turkey farm a week before Thanksgiving. Some turkeys may want to know the objective truth (in this case, their consumption), while others might want to create an illusion (such as turkey heaven). There is no moral right or wrong in this choice, only objectively true and untrue. However, I like to know the objective truth so that my subjective illusions are informed by the objective substrate so I can possibly tweak and maximize the pleasures of my subjective illusions.

  3. sam says:

    Thanks Phill,

    Yes, you got it right,,, or nearly.

    My faith, I like to believe, is based on intuition (a posh term for “guessing”) because I can’t trust them entirely (objective truth and emotions)

    Happy to hear that you are still enjoying the subjective even through the objective truth’s lens :)

    • But what concerns me is the way that intuition or “guessing”, coupled with the emotional need to believe something, even if based on dubious evidence, is co-opted by religions to perpetuate lies that result in both fearful, unfulfilled individual lives due to concepts such as hell and servitude to a god, as well as mutually hostile social groups due to the belief that they possess superior divine revelation.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Good discussion, Phil. In a slightly relevant vein, I would like to recommend these two recent radio programs on philosophy /science from the ABC. I found them both very stimulating. Both available for download:

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2009/2605018.htm

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2009/2607224.htm

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